I spent my formative coming-of-age years summering at Salisbury Beach, a community on Massachusetts’ north shore, the last town before crossing into Hampton, New Hampshire. Both towns were chock full of arcades and fried dough, soft serve ice cream and rowdy bars, pizza and people watching. Hampton drew a teenage crowd, roaming the loop in their day-glo bathing suits and barefoot, the pads of their feet dirty from the road, wearing pooka shell necklaces and half-shirts. Salisbury, on the other hand, catered to a slightly younger crowd, a bit more family oriented with its two tiny amusement parks. You couldn’t love both, I’d learned, You were either a Hampton guy or a Salisbury guy.
I was team Salisbury.
As the 1970s transitioned into the 80s, we had stopped renting the cottage, yet I probably actually spent more time than ever up at Salisbury. One of my father’s good friends, Big Steve, lived in a trailer park a mile or so north of the downtown area, so my father and I drove up regularly to visit. Sometimes we headed to the town center, where Big Steve and my father would have a couple beers in the cool, dark shadows of Shaffey’s Pub, practically next door to Shaheen’s Fun Park and the Atlantic beyond it. My father would give me a few bucks, and I’d wander the park, carefully deciding how to best spend these three dollars. Rides were one way to go: the Himalaya, of course, with its loud music and screaming girls; the haunted house, a dark ride with a terrifically elaborate façade of gravestones, creepy, crooked trees, and fiendish ghouls poking their skulls out dilapidated broken windows; the Skydiver—which I’d only been on once, and, quite frankly, once was enough. Or maybe I’d spent my money in one of the five or six arcades that populated the boardwalk, playing Joust and Tapper, or Skeeball, my back pocket bulging with folded tickets that I’d cash in for spider rings and caps that I’d hit with a rock to make spark and pop, its spiraling smoke emitting that iconic smell that I can still remember clearly to this day. Sometimes I’d spend some of the money at the row of carnival games that ran parallel to the beach, usually going for the ten-cent wheel of chance, since I could stay for ten games with a single dollar, milking the afternoon, as opposed to most of the other quarter games.
When I was out of cash—thirty minutes or maybe even a couple hours later, I’d walk back to Shaffey’s and sit on a padded stool next to my father and Big Steve, its stuffing bleeding out from a long tear in a gray froth. He’d introduce me to a couple of the other guys there, and then get me a Coke with extra cherries. A Red Sox game would be on the TVs, a little fuzzy with interference, music coming from the dusty juke box in the corner, maybe something by Eddie Rabbit or Jim Croce, maybe Neil Diamond singing “Forever in Blue Jeans.” Often I’d wander over to it and flip through the song cards, partly to see what songs the machine had, but more likely just for the satisfying feel of the panels turning and clapping against one another, like a big plastic book.
If my father wasn’t quite ready to go, sometimes he’d let me scoop the change off the sticky bar top, and off I’d go again into the sunlight, coins jangling in my corduroy pockets, heavy with possibility.
* * *
Big Steve was a fisherman, so he’d go out for a thirty-day excursion to the outer banks on big fishing vessels, so his trailer would be available for us to use. He also had his own fishing boat, the Valhalla, that he’d take my father and me out on a couple times each summer to catch bluefish. I’d watch, horrified, whenever they brought one in on a line, Big Steve or perhaps another friend, Robbie, hooking the large fish with a gaff, impaling it to heave it into the boat, where it would continue to flop and fight. They’d remind me to stay clear of it, that bluefish had nasty teeth that could do a lot of damage. Their arms were scarred with evidence. Robbie then used a stained wooden club to pound the fish into submission, flecks of blood spattering the wooden deck, and Robbie’s arms and face would be freckled with blood, too. Once he showed me a small greasy heart, still pumping in the palm of his hand, no bigger than an egg. “That’s pure protein,” he told me. “You dare me to eat that?” I’d heard stories of his eating dares: once he’d earned ten bucks for scoffing down one of the bluefish eyes, a pinball-sized blob of gelatin that he’d thought he could simply pop into his mouth and swallow. When he couldn’t because of its size, he’d been forced to chew, the eye popping audibly, black oil spilling down his chin, his own eyes watering with struggle.
My father intervened, stepping between me and Robbie’s still-beating fish heart. “No,” my father said, “Knock it off with that shit. Jesus Christ.”
I missed land: the Salisbury boardwalk; the cinnamon smells of fried dough and joy that lived in the air; girls’ shrieks of delight coming from the Himalaya; the smell of coconut suntan lotion. From the boat, I could see the uneven line of shore, the grayed-out silhouette of the Skydiver dissolving against the late sun, the roiling surf creating the illusion that the shoreline was seesawing, up and down, back and forth, but of course it wasn’t. I sat on the edge of the boat, staring at the Skydiver ride, while Robbie, to my left, cleaned fish at the back of the boat, cutting and slashing with a sharp, dirty knife, scraping guts into the roiling sea, where the seagulls, aggressive and desperate, hovered and squawked for more.
* * *
The first story I wrote in my MFA program in 2005 was “Himalaya,” a fictionalized account of summers in Salisbury during the 1980s, of love found and just as quickly lost. It was well-received by my peers and professors, and was later published in a literary magazine. I was proud of that story. Some years later, after finishing a novel, I returned to the subject, taking n a darker tone with “Salisbury Beach,” which was published in Solstice Literary Magazine. But Salisbury, apparently, wasn’t finished with me. Five years later, I returned again to 1970s Salisbury with a third story, “Skydiver.” Some of the characters from each of the three stories had found their way into other stories, and I realized that these three stories weren’t separate entities after all, but puzzle pieces in a larger story. Three individual close-ups in a broad mosaic. Over the next couple years I wrote five more Salisbury Beach stories, including one long novella about the inevitable closing of the Salisbury drive-in theater. Background characters in one story became the central characters of another. A character from my MFA novel, The Empty Space Between Stars, made an appearance in a story, thirty years before the events of the novel. Then two more characters from my recent novel, Land’s End, show up in another story, tying the two novels and the collection of stories into one universe. The stories were fiction, but they seemed to be taking on lives of their own, these characters existing in some alternate version of reality.
* * *
I return to Salisbury now and again. The real Salisbury, not the one in my imagination. And usually I bring my wife along. Salisbury, today, is a bit of a Frankenstein creation: much of what was once there is gone—Shaheen’s Fun Park, with its Himalaya and Skydiver rides, is now a paved parking lot for the Seaglass restaurant and Blue Ocean Pavilion. The waterslide is long gone; so, too, is Pirates Park, as well as the long strip of arcades and beach games. In their places are a few dive bars, a strip club, and condos. But part of the area’s original footprint still exists: some of the pizza windows are still here; the fried dough place is there; and some of the signs haven’t changed in the forty years since my first visit. It’s a clash of time standing still versus progress, and Salisbury, right now, feels to be at a stalemate between the two.
Christine seems to enjoy our pit stops in Salisbury. But perhaps she’s just humoring me. We went up a couple weeks ago and brought our two young nephews. We played Skeeball at Joe’s Playland and watched them enjoy some of the newer, louder games, then went upstairs to play air hockey. On one side of the room I found all the old school arcade games—Centipede, Ms. Pac Man, Q-Bert—their screens dulled by time and grime. I didn’t play any of them, but I did stroll past them, lingering to look and remember, sometimes tapping the buttons, listening to the plastic click-clacking with that old, familiar sound.
I have a pair of jeans in the bottom of a drawer, and I hardly ever wear them. They’re faded to nearly white, every edge fringed and tattered, patched and patched again, the patches themselves worn with time and love and starting to peel off. But when I do, on occasion, take them out and put them on, I’m surprised by how well they still fit, how comfortable they still feel. And I’m happy to keep them on for awhile, live in them, give them just a little more use. Make sure they still feel loved, the way that they’ve loved me for so very long.
And that, too, is Salisbury Beach.